Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

What Your Neighborhood Says About Your Health

April 15th, 2012 at 2:55 pm by timigustafson
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Where you live may determine how healthy you are or can hope to be, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Researchers using a geographic information system (GIS) found that access to quality food outlets and opportunities to be physically active can make communities not only more attractive but also more healthy.

Both children and adults who live in areas that provide supermarkets within reasonable distance, recreational parks and safe sidewalks and bike paths have on average lower rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease than those living in underserved neighborhoods, including so-called food deserts.

“The biggest difference we found in rates of obesity were in places where the environment was good for both nutrition and physical activity,” said Dr. Brian Saelens, professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and co-author of the study report. “The rates [in the best places] were less than 8 percent. But if the nutrition and physical activity were not good, the rates went up to 16 percent.”

Although these findings should not come as a surprise, it is the first time that scientists have used geographic data to specifically investigate the causes of lifestyle-related health problems.

Up to now, most studies on the ever-rising obesity epidemic have been focusing on factors such as lifestyle, income, education and genetic preconditions. Geographic differences should be used more often in the future to assess the connections between nutrition, physical activity and obesity. For instance, if we can count the numbers of grocery stores, convenient stores, fast food restaurants and recreational facilities in a particular area, we may be able to predict better what chances the local population has to live more healthily, the researchers said.

“To address this health crisis, attention must be focused on a key issue that lies at the core of the epidemic: The social inequities of obesity,” said Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, MD, MPA, a former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General.

“A significant body of scientific evidence links poverty with higher rates of obesity. Families with limited economic resources turn to food with poor nutritional quality because it is cheaper and more accessible. Low-income families live in neighborhoods where it is dangerous to play outside, reducing opportunities for both children and adults to exercise. Instead of supermarkets, [low-income] neighborhoods may have an abundance of fast-food retailers and corner stores that are stocked with products high in fat and low in nutrients. Families are often targeted by food marketers with advertisements encouraging the consumption of nutrient-poor foods, increasing the likelihood of adopting unhealthy dietary practices.”

Despite of their best efforts to lure more supermarkets to underserved neighborhoods through tax breaks and other incentives, local governments find it hard to overcome the many obstacles they’re facing. The so-called food deserts in many poor urban and rural areas persist because of lack of consumer demand (people don’t have the money to buy nutritious but pricey foods), high crime rates (and insurance costs) and transportation expenses (to remote areas).

An area is officially considered a food desert when it has no supermarkets within 1 mile in an urban setting and within 10 miles in a rural environment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that nearly 25 million Americans live in food deserts.

Social welfare programs such as food stamps bring only limited relief because of geographic hindrances. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a quarter of all food stamps recipients do not have easy access to supermarkets. High gas prices and lack of private or public transportation only worsen the situation.

Obviously, not all or even many of these conditions can be changed overnight. However, a few small steps in the right direction can go a long way. Communities have taken initiatives all over the country to facilitate more local farmers markets and sales outlets for urban farms where fresh foods are available at affordable prices. Achieving better “walkability” has become a goal in cities and towns of all sizes. With greater awareness, good will and some imagination, we all can make a difference for ourselves and our neighborhood.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

BMI Found Insufficient for Measuring Obesity

April 11th, 2012 at 4:41 pm by timigustafson
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For nearly 200 years, doctors have relied on a formula called the “Body Mass Index” (BMI) to determine whether their patients are within a healthy weight range or beyond. A new study suggests that this approach may be insufficiently accurate for measuring obesity. Researchers found that roughly half of women and a fifth of men who are considered normal-weight according to their BMI numbers should in fact be classified as obese when tested for percentage of body fat in relation to lean muscle mass.

The authors of the study report, Dr. Nirav R. Shah, Commissioner of Public Health in New York City and Dr. Eric Braverman, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical School, said that the common reliance on BMI readings was misleading both the experts and the public about the true proportions of the current obesity crisis.

Over a third of adult Americans are classified as obese based on their BMI measures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But because BMI does not distinguish between fat and muscle, many people with a normal BMI may carry dangerously high amounts of body fat.

“Fat causes heart disease, cancer, menstrual problems, depression, anxiety and a host of other medical problems,” said Dr. Braverman. “Without an accurate measurement of body fat, millions of people don’t know whether they are at risk for obesity-related diseases.”

Instead of relying solely on the BMI formula, which is weight divided by height squared in kilograms and centimeters, or weight divided by height squared in pounds and inches multiplied by 703, Shah and Braverman propose to take a test called dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), which is commonly used to evaluate bone density in women to check for signs of osteoporosis. Unfortunately, that kind of test is costly and may not be feasible for use as a routine procedure.

As an alternative, the doctors suggested measuring leptin levels in the body. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells. Testing leptin levels is simpler, less expensive and focuses on the core of weight problems, which is body fat.

Other easy measures that can be done by anyone at home are called waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio.

“Without knowing how much fat [people] have, you can’t really save them from illness. It is the number one predictor of who’s going to live or die,” said Dr. Braverman.

Based on their findings, Shah and Braverman suggested to lower the BMI markers for obesity from 30 to 24 for women and 28 for men. Under the current standards, BMI classifies millions of Americans as healthy when they actually should be concerned about their weight.

Commenting on the study, Dr. William O’Neill, a professor of cardiology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine who was not involved in the research, called the findings “alarming.” “Traditionally, we have used BMI. But this study tells you that BMI really underestimates how many are obese.”

Shah and Braverman agree that this may be a game-changer. “We may be further behind than we thought in addressing the nation’s crisis of obesity,” they said.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Adjusting Diet and Exercise to a Slowing Metabolism

April 7th, 2012 at 2:02 pm by timigustafson
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Nothing in your lifestyle has changed, you are eating the same way and exercise as often as you always have, but, as you get older, you are gaining weight. How come? What you may not be aware off is that your body’s metabolism has slowed down, which means that you are burning fewer calories than when you were younger.

Starting at about age 25, the average person’s metabolism declines between 5 and 10 percent per decade, according to Dr. John Berardi, president of Precision Nutrition and author of “The Metabolism Advantage.” This means that the typical American loses between 20 and 40 percent of metabolic power over the course of his or her adult life span.

Typically between 40 and 50 years of age, the body requires fewer calories due to lower expenditure. There can be several reasons for this. You may be less physically active, spend more time working at a desk, endure longer commutes and adopt an all-around more sedentary lifestyle. You may also undergo an increasing amount of muscle loss, partly because of the natural aging process, partly because of physical inactivity. Either way, your calorie needs go down. If you don’t reduce your food intake accordingly, you gain weight from storing fat.

These effects can be more pronounced when someone already has weight problems. The more fat is stored, the less efficiently the body is able to burn calories. Add to this a lesser amount of physical activity and you have a scenario where more weight gain is almost unavoidable.

Genetics and certain medications can also play a role as well as hormonal changes. Women after menopause are especially prone to undergo metabolic shifts.

But it’s not all bad news. A vastly slowed down metabolism isn’t inevitable, said Dr. Berardi. The main problem is that we all tend to become far less physically active over the course of our lives. People who preserve their physical activity levels can expect to see only a 0.3 percent metabolic decline per decade, a 1 to 2 percent total drop over a person’s lifetime, he added in an interview with WebMD.

So what can you do to fight nature every inch of the way? Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have compiled a number of strategies that can give a boost to your aging metabolism.

• Adhere to a healthy diet. If you reduce your calorie intake to avoid weight gain, it is crucial that you make up for the difference by eating more nutritious foods. Whether you are concerned with weight control or not, it is always helpful to cut back on empty calories and go for highly nutrient-dense items instead.

• Eat breakfast. Having a healthy meal at the start of your day gets your metabolism out of its resting state and back into burning mode. Skipping breakfast forces the body to endure longer periods of fasting, which can leave you excessively hungry and tempt you to overeat at the next opportunity.

• Eat frequently. Instead of consuming large meals two or three times a day, try to keep your metabolism consistently on ‘slow burn’ by eating small amounts of food every three or four hours.

• Eat lean protein. Your body burns more calories when digesting proteins rather than carbohydrates and fats. Preferable are low-fat protein sources such as lean meats and poultry, beans and non-fat dairy products.

• Do aerobic exercise and strength training. Regular age-appropriate exercise and resistance training are highly recommended. As we age, we are at greater risk of losing lean body mass, which can initiate a vicious cycle of change in body composition, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, author of “Healthy Aging.” To control weight, you may, in addition to eating less and exercising more, try to increase lean body mass – by weight training, for example – in order to keep the metabolic furnace burning.

• Get enough sleep. Our busy lifestyles keep too many of us chronically sleep-deprived. Among other effects, not getting enough sleep can interfere with your appetite-regulating hormones. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can lead to unhealthy eating habits, similar to stress.

• Avoid supplements. Taking metabolism-boosting supplements such as caffeine, kola nut, bitter orange and others, all of which are stimulants to raise your metabolism by boosting your heart rate, is not a good idea because of many potentially serious side effects. One of the most popular stimulants, ephedra (Ma-huang), was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after its use was linked to several deaths.

The body has many ways to adjust to its changing needs. The best thing you can do is to be aware of these changes and respond accordingly.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

How Can Education Make You Live Longer? It’s Complicated

April 4th, 2012 at 4:39 pm by timigustafson
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The average life expectancy of all Americans has continuously increased over the past few generations for a number of reasons, including advances in nutrition, hygiene and medical care. But there are significant disparities within the population, which seem to be linked to social, economic and – as it turns out – educational differences.

According to a new study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there could be a direct correlation between a person’s education and the number of years he or she can hope to live.

For this study, researchers analyzed over 3,000 counties nationwide and ranked them within their respective states by a number of diverse measures, including access to quality healthcare, obesity rates, tobacco sales, unemployment, environmental pollution, crime rates, even the density of fast food outlets. The significance of education levels stood out.

“If you have a community with a high number of high school dropouts, with a high unemployment rate and with children living in poverty, you can absolutely predict that poor health outcomes will be coming down the road,” said Dr. Pat Remington, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and director of the study.

Unemployment and poverty do not only lead to deprivation of essential resources such as good nutrition and basic health care but often also to self-destructive behaviors like smoking and alcohol- and drug abuse. “All these things are part of a web of health,” Dr. Remington added.

The Wisconsin study is not the first that has found a link between education and longevity. A study from Harvard University, published in 2008, described “a stunning correlation between the longer lifespan of people with at least one year of college compared to people with a high school education or less,” according to Dr. David Cutler, dean of social sciences at Harvard. Better educated adults gained on average 1.5 years of life expectancy over 10 years and an additional 1.6 years over 20 years compared to those with a high school diploma or less.

Going to college by itself, of course, does not automatically make you live longer. But the study does suggest that better education often leads to better lifestyle choices. “It turns out that across the board, if you look at any health behavior, better educated people do better than less educated, said Dr. Cutler. “Anything from smoking, obesity, wearing seat belts, having a smoke detector in your house, not using illegal drugs, not drinking heavily, better educated people do better,” he said.

Conversely, the average life expectancy of obese people, smokers and those without access to preventive health care has begun to plateau. Due to growing childhood obesity, some experts predict that the lifespan of significant parts of the population will likely decline in the future.

Needless to say that none of these findings are clear-cut. There are plenty of folks with PhDs and beyond who are overweight and smoke and drink heavily. “Sometimes, even a good education can’t keep smart people from doing dumb things,” said Lee Dye, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times who reported on the Harvard study.

And even centenarians have bad habits. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that the 100 plus crowd does generally not adhere to dramatically healthier lifestyle choices than the rest of us. There seems to be no particular formula that allows some people to live exceptionally long lives. Even genetic factors have turned out to be less important than some have suggested, as demonstrated in studies that followed identical twins who were separated at birth, lived under vastly different circumstances and died at different ages.

Besides reasonably healthy diet and lifestyle choices, one thing, however, seems to matter greatly. People who remain free of debilitating illnesses at old age, physically as well as mentally, are typically very active. They enjoy a vibrant social life, pursue multiple interests, maintain a positive attitude and know how to take care of their needs. They may be well educated, but not always in terms of formal education. An open mind and an insatiable curiosity may have gotten them just as far.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Weight Loss Surgery for Diabetes Patients – A Problematic Choice

April 1st, 2012 at 3:19 pm by timigustafson
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With obesity rates in the United States and around the world continuously rising, surgery for weight loss is becoming an ever more acceptable option. Now, two clinical studies suggest that diabetics can benefit from operations as well. Type 2 (or adult-onset) diabetes is mostly linked to weight problems and has reached similarly epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of diabetes cases has nearly tripled over the last three decades and affects today more than 20 million Americans.

Both study reports – one from Italy, the other from the United States – concluded that surgical procedures, a.k.a. bariatric surgery, by which the size of the stomach is considerably reduced, enabled patients not only to lose weight but also manage their blood sugar levels more effectively than traditional measures like dieting and medication. Bariatric Surgery Can Carry Great Risks, Including Malnutrition

The findings, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, may change how many diabetes cases will be treated in the future. Proponents of bariatric surgery say the studies confirmed that stomach size reduction should no longer be seen as a last resort but should be considered earlier in the treatment of obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Others warned that more studies are needed and that the risks in connection with the procedures available today remain high.

According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), about 200,000 surgical procedures for weight loss are performed annually in the U.S. The National Institute of Health (NIH) says that surgery should only be recommended for people with a body mass index (B.M.I.) of over 40, or over 35 for those with diabetes and other serious illnesses related to weight problems.

For the studies, the researchers limited themselves to three types of weight loss surgery: Roux-en-Y, biliopancreatic diversion and sleeve gastrectomy. Roux-en-Y is the most commonly applied method of gastric bypass surgery, by which a small part of the stomach is sealed off and then directly connected to the small intestine. Biliopancreatic diversion removes large parts of the stomach and bypasses the majority of the small intestine as well, which limits both food intake and absorption of nutrients. Sleeve gastrectomy reshapes the stomach into a smaller tube but does not alter the way food enters or leaves it.

Needless to say, these are all very drastic steps to prevent weight gain and a host of diseases that often go with it, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol and so forth.

As a dietitian, my greatest concern is how the anatomical changes affect the metabolism of patients. Because bariatric surgery limits food intake so dramatically and also diminishes the absorption of nutrients, there is a great risk of malnutrition. Especially a sufficient supply of protein, which is extremely important during rapid weight loss for overall health and to allow for proper healing from the surgery, can become hard to obtain. Part of the reason for this is that the initial digestion of proteins takes place in the stomach, which after surgery is not only reduced in size but also in capacity. Even more problematic is the hindered absorption of essential nutrients in the small intestine because some or much of it is bypassed. This affects the absorption of carbohydrates, proteins and fats but also vitamins and minerals. Potential complications, not only from the surgical procedure itself but also from the nutritional deficiencies, are multiple.

Bariatric surgery should never be considered as a quick fix, on par with cosmetic surgery. It is a profound alteration of the digestive system that is risky and requires permanent changes in diet and lifestyle choices. Intensive post-operational counseling and strict observation of nutritional guidelines are an absolute must.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Widespread Chronic Sleep Deprivation Seen as a Cause for Concern

March 28th, 2012 at 7:23 am by timigustafson
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There are multiple causes for the so-called lifestyle-related diseases that plague us today. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension can mostly be blamed on poor nutrition, lack of exercise, stress and, as scientists increasingly find out, sleep deprivation.

Over the last few decades, Americans have kept cutting back on their sleep as their lives have become busier. Long hours spent on work, commutes, kids’ activities and household chores leave less and less time for rest. While a few generations ago people slept for eight hours or more, most Americans have to get by on six hours or less today.

And it’s not only the difference in the amount of time but also the quality of the rest we get that has turned us into a nation of chronically sleep-deprived zombies.

“Sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic proportions and may soon be our nation’s number one health problem,” says Cindy Heroux, a Registered Dietitian and author of “The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body.”

“When you don’t get enough sleep, you are more likely to suffer from certain chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. You are also more likely to gain weight or become obese,” she says.

What is the connection? Sleep deprivation can lead to disruption of your metabolism, which in turn can make the cells in your body more insulin resistant. Insulin resistance causes the cells to think they are being starved and, as a result, urgent hunger signals are dispatched to the brain, making you want to eat. That is one of the reasons why people reach for food when they are overtired or stressed out.

A recent study published in the “Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism” concluded that even short-term sleep deprivation can activate the appetite-controlling part of the brain, increasing hunger levels. Researchers have calculated that for each hour a person cuts back on sleep, he or she consumes an average of 360 additional calories. If extra calories are not burned off, they are stored as fat and insulin resistance increases even further. It’s a vicious cycle and the negative health effects can be multiple.

Some experts say that it’s not just the perpetual lack of sleep that makes Americans sick but also the ways we are trying to cope with being chronically sleep deprived. Too many people just muddle through their tiredness, says Dr. Matthew Edlund, author of “The Power of Rest.” He believes that the widespread reliance on energy drinks like “Red Bull,” “Monster” and “5-Hour Energy” does potentially more harm than users realize.

“We don’t use our bodies the way they’re built to be used,” he says. “We guzzle energy drinks and then can’t sleep at night. We sit all day and then read e-mails at 3 a.m. It’s no wonder we walk around like zombies and treat these drinks like liquid life support. It’s a good time to question these trends and find healthier ways to power up.”

Instead of using energy boosters that work short-term but eventually only add to the exhaustion resulting from sleep deprivation, nutrition experts recommend protein-rich snacks like low-fat yogurt or cheese or peanut butter. In the end, however, there is only one solution and that is getting regularly a good night’s sleep.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Following a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Can Add Years to Your Life

March 25th, 2012 at 3:48 pm by timigustafson
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Do you observe a healthy diet, abstain from smoking, watch your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and do you exercise at least for 30 minutes three times a week? If so, your chances of dying from a heart attack are much lower than those of your contemporaries with less health-promoting lifestyles.

Researchers found that taking a few simple, commonsense steps to protect your heart can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease more substantially than previously thought.

For a recently completed study that followed almost 45,000 adult Americans, scientists looked into data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and linked them with a database of deaths over three time periods, starting in 1988 and ending in 2010. After almost 15 years of follow-up, the survey showed that participants who adhered most closely to the diet and lifestyle recommendations of the American Heart Health Association (AHA) had a 76 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 51 percent lower risk of all-cause deaths than those who complied less. The details of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA – 3/23/2012).

Unfortunately, the researchers also found that only a small minority of Americans follows all or most of the AHA guidelines for heart health.

“Everyone knows that the heart health of Americans is dismal. Yet, despite of trying hard (really hard), I fail more than 90 percent of the time to get patients to change their heart-healthy behaviors,” laments Dr. John Mandrola, a cardiologist. “Nine in ten patients return just as fat and sedentary as they were at the time of my previous lecture on heart health.”

The problem is not that Americans lack access to information that prevents them from taking better care of their heart health. “Getting people to know [the facts] is not the issue, rather the issue is the implementation of the plan, says Dr. Mandrola.

Heart disease is the most common cause of deaths in the U.S. today, ahead of cancer and stroke. One and a half million Americans die every year from the disease or complications connected to it. While it is true that heart disease can be caused by inherent risk factors such as family history or simply by aging, poor lifestyle choices are to be blamed in most cases. Excess weight, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol abuse and insufficient physical activity are all commonly known culprits. Most heart patients have several of these risk factors to deal with – and they tend to “gang up” and aggravate each other’s effects.

Heart disease usually shows no specific warning signs. You have to look at the numbers to find out about your heart’s health condition. “You can and should make a difference in your heart health by understanding and addressing your personal risks,” says Dr. Susan B. Shurin, director at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institute of Health (NIH). For any successful treatment of heart disease as well as for prevention it is crucial to regularly monitor cholesterol levels – LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides –blood pressure and, of course, body weight.

Americans tend to rely too quickly on medications when they encounter heart health problems. In many cases that may be a necessary first step, but the goal should always be to achieve risk reduction by better diet and lifestyle choices. “Good Nutrition and lifestyle are the cornerstones of health,” says Dr. Leslie Cho, director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic. “Pills are supplements. They’re not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Nutrition Can Greatly Impact Your Child’s Learning Ability

March 21st, 2012 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson
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The nutritional quality of our diet affects our wellbeing throughout our lives, but it has an even greater impact on children whose bodies and minds are still growing. Nutritional deficiencies can seriously damage a child’s neural development, possibly leading to lower IQ and learning disabilities.

Studies by neuroscientists have found that low-quality nutrition during childhood can be detrimental to the development of cognitive capabilities, such as learning, problem solving and memorizing. Early malnourishment can lead to deficiencies in vision, fine motors skills, language and social skills as well as an array of chronic illnesses lasting well into adulthood.

Unfortunately, the crucial role nutrition plays for developmental, cognitive and behavioral outcomes in life’s early stages is often not well understood and appropriately acted upon by schools and parents.

Some scientists see a direct link between high saturated fat intake and mental performance. Tests have shown that many items popular in school cafeterias such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza and French fries actually lower students’ ability to stay awake and concentrate. A dramatic drop in energy due to digestion of heavy foods leaves kids feeling lethargic, irritable and unable to focus.

According to a study by the American School Health Association (ASHA), students who had consistently insufficient protein intake scored lower on achievement tests than their classmates who had adequate nutrition. Students with chronic iron deficiency were more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Under- or malnourished children were found more prone to infections and illnesses, causing them to miss school and fall behind in their education.

Pediatricians and pediatric dietitians have long emphasized that giving kids a healthy breakfast plays an especially important role for their nutritional wellbeing. Without a boost at the start of their day, young brains cannot function well. To do its work, the brain needs a sufficient supply of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. Sugary cereals or white-flour pancakes with syrup don’t offer many essential nutrients. Eggs (preferably egg whites only), whole grain breads, fruits and low-fat milk are better choices.

By lunchtime, most children’s bodies are depleted and in dire need of another energy provider. Highly caloric and fatty foods with little or no nutritional value only worsen the situation. Soups, salads, fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources and whole grains can do the job much better. If your child’s school cafeteria does not offer healthy lunch choices, prepare a box lunch for him or her to take along.

An afternoon snack before play or study time is recommended, but, again, sugary items like candy, pastries and sodas should be avoided. Instead, you can serve a fruit salad or a tray of raw veggies and yogurt dips.

Dinner should help your child to wind down and relax before bedtime. Fatty foods like pizza or cheeseburgers are not a good idea. Items that contain high amounts of sugar late in the day can lead to sleep disruptions. Age-appropriate portions of pasta topped with a hearty vegetable sauce (preferably made from scratch), fish, chicken and other lean meats combined with healthy side dishes complete your child’s nutritional needs for the day.

Eating habits develop early. Most children acquire them from their parents and older siblings. Kids don’t develop food preferences on their own, not even for candy. They learn what to like or dislike by observing others. What you as the parent buy and bring in the house is what they will have access to. How you treat your own body in terms of diet, exercise and lifestyle choices will influence their own behavior.

Considering the potentially grave consequences of malnutrition during childhood, parents have a great responsibility to invest in their offspring’s nutritional health. Unfortunately, budgetary limitations and lack of knowledge about basic dietary facts prevent many parents from making better choices. They should not be expected to do it all on their own. A concerted effort involving families, schools, government agencies and community services is necessary to improve the nutritional welfare of all members of society, and especially the young.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Childhood Obesity, a Disease with Devastating Effects on Multiple Levels

March 18th, 2012 at 8:19 am by timigustafson
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The physical health effects of childhood obesity are well researched and documented. They include type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and certain forms of cancer. Less talked about are the psychological damages children and adolescents with weight problems often suffer. But the truth is that low self-esteem, discrimination and isolation in connection with obesity can be just as devastating as the physical aspects and can make matters even worse.

Too many overweight kids find themselves being teased and made fun of because of their physical appearance, according to psychologist Dr. Kelly Brownell, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Teasing, he says can come from classmates, teachers, even from family members. More so than adults, children tend to internalize criticism or scorn, which can make them feel inferior, unattractive or out of place. In response, many lose their aspirations and motivations to better themselves. They withdraw and become socially isolated. Some develop behavioral dysfunctions, depression or addictions.

The psychological consequences of weight problems at a young age are not easily outgrown. As adults, many continue to carry the scars from their earlier struggles. A study conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Michigan found that people who were overweight during their high school years were significantly less likely to pursue higher education or professional carriers and were more at risk of unemployment and dependency on welfare programs than their normal-weight peers.

One of the reasons why overweight kids are discriminated against may be the still widespread assumption that all weight problems are caused by lack of personal discipline and restraint. “People think that overweight adults have only themselves to blame. They should eat less and exercise more,” says Dr. Brownell. “But blame is simply unreasonable when it comes to children, especially in low-income neighborhoods where markets are often inadequate and places to exercise are nearly nonexistent. So, it’s unfair to put people in an environment where weight gain is a very strong possibility and then blame them for having problems.”

Another issue often mentioned in connection with childhood obesity is the powerful influence of food marketing. Children and adolescents are extremely impressionable and don’t know how to respond to the conflicting messages they are receiving from society, popular culture and the media. On the one hand, they are constantly challenged to comply with physical beauty ideals, which can put a lot of pressure on them to be thin, especially on girls, thereby increasing the risk of developing eating disorders. On the other hand, they are constantly exposed to food and soda ads on TV, encouraging them to consume more. A 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found compelling evidence that food advertisements had a direct impact on childhood obesity. On average, American children watch up to 10,000 food, soda and snack commercials every year, according to a survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), titled “Children, Adolescents and Advertising.” For the food and beverage industry, this is a multi-billion dollars investment worthwhile making. Under these circumstances, the notion that it’s up to the kids themselves to exercise self-control is just laughable.

In an ideal world, parents would be best equipped to prevent childhood obesity from occurring in their families in the first place. But parents are often too busy to control their offspring’s eating habits or are having weight issues themselves. Statistics show that if one parent is overweight, the children have a 40 percent chance to follow in his or her footsteps. If both parents are struggling, the chances increase to 80 percent.

Healthy eating and lifestyle habits do not just appear out of nowhere. They must involve the entire family but also social surroundings like schools, work places and communities. Instead of further stigmatizing people of all ages because of their weight problems, we as a society must find ways to address the issues at hand constructively by creating an environment that is conducive to the health and wellbeing of all its members.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Lifelong Learning May Be the Best Defense Against Alzheimer’s Disease

March 11th, 2012 at 5:00 pm by timigustafson
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Exercising the brain as much as exercising the body to keep both fit and healthy has become the new mantra for the aging baby boomer generation. Scientists seem to agree. Studies show that people who were cognitively active throughout their lives are less likely to experience mental decline as they grow older.

Age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease is the most feared health condition among older Americans today, second only to cancer. It is also one of the most significant health threats of the 21st century, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Harvard School of Public Health that was first published at an international conference on the subject in Paris, France, last year.

The causes for Alzheimer’s are not yet fully understood and there are currently no effective treatments that can halt or reverse the progressively debilitating disease. Researchers have suggested that diet and exercise as well as mental stimulation may serve as preventive measures, but there is not enough scientific evidence that these have a significant impact.

There are a number of health conditions, however, believed to promote the development of dementia. One is inflammation of the brain caused by stress hormones such as cortisol, which is toxic to nerve cells in the brain and especially to those responsible for memory. Another contributing factor is cardiovascular disease because it can prevent the brain from receiving sufficient blood supply, thereby damaging it.

A more controversial suggestion is that education, or lack thereof, can make a difference in the likelihood of someone becoming demented later in life. Obviously, the notion that the well-educated have a better shot at staying mentally healthy while the unschooled run the risk of losing their minds is hard to accept because it sounds elitist and snobbish. That makes it difficult to raise the issue without provoking strong reactions. Still, we have to look at the evidence.

Neuroscientists say that the reason why education can help prevent or at least slow down an aging person’s cognitive decline is that during learning processes structural changes in the brain’s neural network take place as neurons connect with one another. This is only possible because the central nervous system is in constant dynamic flux, which enables it to respond and adapt to changing requirements.

The more learning experiences we undergo over the years, the more neural connections we develop in the brain. This does not only happen when we learn something brand new – like a foreign language or a computer program – but even when we do routine work or play our favorite games. The already established neural connections just multiply as we repeat similar mental processes. That is why most tasks become easier to master over time, which is what learning is. This process is called “neural redundancy,” meaning that many neural connections become redundant through repetition – but not obsolete because when some connections get damaged or degenerate, others take over and continue to function in their place. In other words, the more “redundant” connections we develop over a lifetime through constant learning, the less likely we will lose our skills and abilities as we age.

So the question arises whether we can avoid the decline of our mental capacities by, let’s say, learning Mandarin, reading philosophical books or mastering programming software? Not if you start late, scientists say. Being mentally active from early on and throughout life, not just when you reach old age, is what makes the difference, according to Dr. William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley. What you do at 40 or 50 is more important than what you take on at 75.

“Older people seem to have less efficient brains [than younger people] and have to work their brains harder,” said Dr. Jagust in an interview on the subject with the New York Times (3/8/2012). “People who stay cognitively active may be able to use their brains more efficiently,” he added.

Does it then still make sense to strive for mental fitness when you are already approaching retirement age or even later? Within limits, yes, Dr. Jagust agrees. Memory usually diminishes with age, even with people who do not have dementia, he said. It’s more about preserving the abilities you have than acquiring new ones, although both go hand in hand.

For those looking for learning opportunities in their later years, there is no shortage of programs offered by universities and colleges throughout the country. And these are not the only options. Educational travel programs are becoming extremely popular among retirees and the travel industry is more than happy to accommodate them.

They say, a good education is wasted on the young – well, it’s certainly not wasted on those who see lifelong learning as yet another fountain of youth. It may not be able to prevent mental decline in the end, but, in the meantime, it clearly does no harm.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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